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Utility ratepayers need an advocate, too
Commentary

Utility ratepayers need an advocate, too

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Despite natural gas’s demonstrated environmental and cost benefits, the California Public Utility Commission’s independent Public Advocates Office has allied itself with the Sierra Club to eliminate the use of natural gas.

The Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have focused their advocacy activities on local governments throughout the state to end the use of natural gas in commercial and residential properties.

As I stated in my Dec. 3 letter to CPUC President Marybel Batjer, I understood the role of the independent ratepayer advocate to be a narrow and defined function of advocating on behalf of just and reasonable rates.

So, the recent discovery of a “common interest agreement” exposing this “partnership” between the Public Advocates Office and the Sierra Club is disturbing. This document calls for cooperation, confidentiality and, should discussions between these two entities break down, the destruction of documents among other activities. This agreement runs counter to the Public Advocates Office’s mission and puts in jeopardy its revered role of ratepayer advocacy and protection in CPUC proceedings.

This agreement should concern all Californians because it places ratepayers at the severe risk of lacking the attention of the one entity created to monitor the utility commission and limit California’s energy, water and telecommunications costs to consumers.

In response to this disclosure, Sierra Club’s attorneys essentially said these types of arrangements are no big deal. As a former CPUC commissioner, I respectfully beg to differ. The Sierra Club does not bear the CPUC’s burden of safe and cost-efficient energy on demand, or the Public Advocates Office’s focus on energy’s cost to ratepayers.

I have grave concerns about the Public Advocates Office’s conduct surrounding the Southern California Gas Co.’s efforts to advance balanced energy policies for California by decarbonizing ratepayer-funded natural gas fuels and infrastructure. The revelation of this “common interest agreement” between the Public Advocates Office and the Sierra Club is a clear breach of its mission.

Historically, this responsibility was the Public Advocates Office’s mandate, once known as the Office of Ratepayer Advocates and the California Office of Consumer Advocates. I do not know when its mission changed from ratepayer advocacy to environmental stewardship.

Californians need the Public Advocates Office to focus on its stated mission because there is so much work to do to protect ratepayers. The state has the third-highest electricity rates in the United States, the highest poverty rate, and the wealth disparity gap. All existed before the pandemic and have grown worse in the past eight months. Our state is witnessing its worst economic downturn of a generation. To further complicate matters, the world’s fifth-largest economy is also experiencing utility service shutoffs and blackouts.

Thankfully, scrutiny is increasing regarding the impact of zero-carbon policy proposals, like natural gas bans, due to their impacts on those communities least able to pay for them. A recent study by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Stability, concluded: “It is likely that low-income residents of disadvantaged communities, who have the least flexible work schedules, the least access to high-efficiency appliances and energy management systems, and inhabit the most poorly insulated housing stock, will be most adversely affected by these new changes.”

I’m proud to have been part of the administration behind AB 32, the Global Warming Solutions Act. Through all the progress made to date, including the growth of California’s renewable resources, natural gas remains the most affordable and reliable source of energy. Its role in supplying on-demand core gas services and fueling reliable electric generation remains essential to California’s economy, decarbonization, and net-zero goals.

California has a myriad of environmental agencies and nonprofit organizations. Collectively, they have initiated the nation’s most complex environmental regulatory structure. Aggressive environmental regulation is these agencies’ mission, however, this is not the mission of the Public Advocates Office.

The California Public Utilities Commission, the California Legislature and others involved in securing the state’s sustainable energy future need to remind the Public Advocates Office that its core responsibility is to focus on behalf of protecting ratepayers and keeping costs down. It’s too important a mission to abandon due to political pressure.

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Timothy Alan Simon is commissioner emeritus at the California Public Utilities Commission. He is also chair of the board of directors of the California African American Chamber of Commerce. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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